Our Top 10 Hank Williams Songs list presents the best songs of this musical legend including “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Lovesick Blues,” and many more. Originally born as Hiram Williams, the country star known as Hank Williams may not have lived a very long life when he died at the age of twenty-nine years old due to heart failure on New Year’s Day of 1953 but while he was alive and well and recording, what an impression he made. This Alabama-born and raised musician first got his start in the entertainment industry in 1937 while performing at a radio station in Montgomery. Opting to pursue a full-time career as a performer, Williams dropped out of school and was first managed by his mother before meeting up with Audrey Sheppard, who later became his first wife.
Before becoming a solo artist, Williams had teamed up with bandmates, forming the Drifting Cowboys, before most of them were drafted to fight on behalf of the American army during World War II. For Williams, between the birth defect of his spinal column and a back injury he sustained after falling off a bull during a Texas rodeo, he was medically disqualified to serve in the military. This was also during a time period when Williams’s battle with alcoholism would continue to be his nemesis until the day of his death.
While America’s involvement with World War II took place during the first half of the 1940s, Williams worked for an Alabama-based shipbuilding company, as well as performed for soldiers at the local bars. This is where he first met Audrey Sheppard, the same woman who not only became his first wife but the mother of Hank Williams, Jr. For Williams, it was his first marriage. For Sheppard, it was her second.
When Hank Williams recorded and released his breakthrough hit, “Move It on Over” in 1947, this marked the beginning of a country and western music star that would later be regarded as a legend. While with MGM Records, it was hit after hit that had his name dominate the country music charts. When he covered “Lovesick Blues” in 1948, this placed him on the mainstream record charts, cementing his name in the country music genre. At this point, it seemed as if the man was immortal, thanks to one classic hit after another. He also joined the Grand Ole Opry while his career was still at its highest note. Interestingly enough, the man never did learn how to read music. Instead, he simply shared simple tales and personal life experiences. This was material that made him so popular when he started out with the local radio station and what made him so popular nationally and internationally.
The highest point of Hank Williams’s career came about when he toured with Bob Hope and a series of actors in 1951 across the United States. However, this also marked the year Williams fell later in the year while on a hunting expedition. This new injury surged forth previous back pains Williams had experienced, causing him to consume alcohol and painkillers to cope with it.
While 1951 served as a recording career-high for Hank Williams, it also brought forth a series of personal challenges. For starters, his personal struggles against alcoholism, drug abuse, and back-related health issues took their toll on the young man. Since birth, Williams continually struggled to deal with his back pain. In order to cope with the pain, alcohol, and medications were taken to the point where it seemed there was never enough to suppress it completely. During the spring of 1951, he admitted himself for treatment to deal with his addiction to alcohol but that only lasted for three days. In December that same year, he underwent spinal surgery and was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve, staying with his mother until he recovered.
In 1952, Hank Williams returned to recording and touring as a musician. It was also a turbulent year for Williams as he experienced a divorce, an affair, and a new marriage between Sheppard, a dancer named Bobbie Jett, and Billie Jean Horton (also known as Billie Jean Jones). It was also in 1952 that he was ousted from the roster of the Grand Ole Opry due to drunkenness and missed appearances. Oddly enough, it was noted when Williams performed sober the shows weren’t nearly as entertaining as compared to the ones where he was already intoxicated.
However, 1952 also marked the year Hank Williams began to experience heart issues. After being misled by a con man who posed as a physician, he took prescribed medication that would ultimately lead him to his death. Posing as Dr. C.W. Lemon, Horace Marshall convinced Williams to take pills that had a series of ingredients in them that actually made his heart condition worse instead of better. On December 31, 1952, the Charleston, West Virginia concert Hank Williams was supposed to perform was canceled due to extreme weather conditions that rerouted the star and his driver to Canton, Ohio, for the scheduled January 1, 1953 show there. Unfortunately, they only got as far as Knoxville, Tennessee when Charles Carr, the driver assigned to bring Hank Williams, knew the star was in need of emergency medical assistance. Although he did receive it, there were factors involved at the time that led to his demise while en route to Ohio.
When crossing over from the state of Tennessee into Virginia, there was a brief stop in Bristol before crossing into West Virginia. When Carr stopped to get fuel in Oak Hill, this is when he observed Hank Williams had already died. When authorities arrived, they observed there was a collection of empty beer cans and partially written songs.
When it was announced at the Canton, Ohio concert that Hank Williams had died, the audience didn’t believe it and laughed. However, when Hawkshaw Hawkins, along with other performers began to sing “I Saw the Light” as a tribute to the star, reality sunk in and the crowd tearfully sang along with them.
Hank Williams Legacy
Located at 6400 Hollywood Boulevard, Hanks Williams has a star dedicated to him that has been there since 1960. In 1961, Hank Williams was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Nine years later, it was in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1987 this was done so again, this time in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 as he was recognized for his musical contributions, forever transforming country music into a level of pop-culture recognition it never had previously.
Referred to as the King of Country Music, not only did Hank Williams leave behind one of the most impressive discographic portfolios in history, but a son who would follow in his footsteps, Hank Williams, Jr. He also has a daughter, Jett Williams, whose mother was Bobbie Jett. She also embarked on a singing career of her own. As an artist, his music inspired so many artists to cover most of his recorded material that has earned their place on a variety of official billboard charts belonging to different genres. To this day, he is still regarded as the most popular country music star of all time.
To Hank Williams’s credit, he has twelve studio albums, eight posthumously-released live albums, twenty-five compilation albums, and eleven number-one singles. Of the twelve studio albums recorded, two of them were released while he was still alive while the other ten were released between 1954 and 2009.
Top 10 Hank Williams Songs
#10 – Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
1952’s “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” has since become the most covered song by a number of artists ever since Hank Williams first released it. Inspired after hearing tales about Cajun cooking, Williams took it upon himself to make a song out of it, using the theme of a party and a girlfriend as part of the musical storyline. On the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, it became a number one hit while on the US Billboard Hot 100 it peaked at number twenty.
#9 – There’s a Tear in My Beer
In 1989, Hank Williams and Hank Williams, Jr. won a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Collaboration with the hit, “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” In 1988, the son of Hank Williams re-recorded this song, making a point to keep his father’s original recordings in it. This was a song Hank Williams recorded but chose not to release at that time. It wouldn’t be released until 1989, right after the electronically collaborated version between father and son was released and became a number seven hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. For Williams, the beer served as a hope to deal with the loneliness he often felt, at least according to the lyrics. As a man who had such a battle against alcoholism, as well as the turbulence of a marriage to a woman whom he eventually divorced, it seemed as if this song was something poured directly from his heart.
#8 – Kaw-Liga
This lyrical tale featured a wood-carved Indian named “Kaw-Liga” falling in love with an Indian maid in an antique store they both resided in. Patiently waiting for “Kaw-Liga” to demonstrate his interest in her, this became an example of unrequited love as soon as she was purchased by a buyer and taken away. Among many fans and listeners, “Kaw-Liga” was a song that brought out the realities of pride and social stereotypes, blocking what should be a clear path to the road of everlasting love and romance. On the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, it became a number one hit in 1953, one of three singles that year to do so posthumously.
#7 – Honky Tonkin’
There are two versions of “Honky Tonkin” by Hank Williams. The first was released in 1947 while he was still with his first label, Sterling Records. At the time, this was the most unusual musical performance ever recorded. Despite this, Williams made it work and it became a popular favorite the first time around. The second version also came out in 1947, this time via MGM Records. Thanks to the improvement of sound quality, “Honky Tonkin” came across as a livelier version than its predecessor.
Despite its popularity, it would not make an appearance on any official music charts until 1982 when it became a number one hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, thanks to his son, Hank Williams, Jr. It was also popular in Canada at that time as it peaked as high as number six on its RPM Country Tracks chart. “Honky Tonkin” wasn’t just an iconic song sung by a legend but a lifestyle favored by fans of country music who also like the idea of hitting a favorite venue to simply take in the atmosphere of good food, good drink, and good fun.
#6 – Move It on Over
“Move It on Over” was a 1947 single recorded and released by Hank Williams via the MGM Records label. Considered one of the earliest examples of rock and roll music, this song peaked at number four on what is referred to today as the US Billboard Hot 100 Songs. At the time, it was the US Billboard Most Played Juke Box Folk Records. Sung as a husband in trouble with his wife due to his partying ways, was sent to the doghouse where he ordered his canine friend to move aside to make room for him.
For Williams, “Move It on Over” was his big breakthrough as it served as the start of a highly successful recording career that took him from the poorhouse to perhaps a luxury doghouse whenever his wife disapproved of his unruly behavior. Fans of George Thorogood will recognize “Move it on Over” as one of his best-known hits as his 1978 coverage of this Hank Williams original brilliantly illustrated why the song became one of rock and roll’s earliest examples.
#5 – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
First recorded in 1949, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” became a number two hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart the year it was released. In 1966, it would chart again, this time at number forty-three on the same chart. The popularity of this song has become so immense that it has been covered many times over by a wide range of musical artists, regardless of genre. For Williams, the inspiration for this song came after finding it on an MGM schedule. Sung as a lonely man in despair, this served as an eerily haunting tale of a man whose lyrical art often reflected upon the realities of his own life. Such is the case with many successful entertainers who spend so much time away from home, the price for fame and fortune is often paid with just enough loneliness that it can make even a grown man cry.
#4 – Cold, Cold Heart
The bluesy ballad, “Cold, Cold Heart” has become one of many country song and pop song standards since its 1951 release. Adapted from the 1945 melody belonging to “You’ll Still Be in My Heart” from T. Texas Tyler, Williams was inspired to write this song after visiting his wife at the time, Audrey, who was in the hospital. He learned upon this visit she developed an infection after having an abortion he did not know about until that moment. It was believed this was an action carried out by a woman who cheated on her husband while he was on the road and perhaps knew the unborn child was not his. Instead of apologies shared during the hospital visit, there were accusations. This prompted a torn-up Williams to record “Cold, Cold Heart” in light of that encounter.
#3 – Hey, Good Lookin’
“Hey, Good Lookin'” was a 1951 hit recorded and released by Hank Williams that peaked at number one on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. In 2001, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and remains as one of his signature songs that brought out the best in this country music legend. This cheery, lyrical inquiry to his love interest took Williams only twenty minutes to write and was given to his friend, Jimmy Dickens, telling him he needed a hit if he was to become a musical star. However, a week later, Williams recorded it himself as he found the song too tempting to pass up. Since then, it has become a standard in both the musical genres of country and rock. This playful tune still remains a song too much fun to bypass as numerous artists have covered it throughout the years, including Dickens.
#2 – Lovesick Blues
In 1948, Hank Williams performed the 1922 classic, “Lovesick Blues,” a song that first made its appearance in the musical, Oh, Ernest. It was first made popular by Rex Griffin in 1939. For Williams, this was a huge country hit as it peaked at number one on the US Billboard Country Songs chart for four months after it was released as a single in 1949. It also reached the mainstream audience as it peaked as high as number twenty-four on what is now known today as the US Billboard Hot 100. Thanks to his offbeat approach, combined with the yodeling, this became a cult favorite and earned Williams a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry in 1949.
It was also his version that was added to the National Recording Industry in 2004. Events leading up to the recording first saw “Lovesick Blues” directly performed by Williams on the radio station he used to work for. When listeners first heard his performance of this song, there was a demand to hear more. Oddly enough, only Williams felt the song deserved to be recorded while the studio producer was in opposition. It was recorded by a country music band of his own choosing instead of sticking with the jazz sounds.
Going against all the rules that were in place at the time when it came to recorded music set to be released as an official song for the radio, not only did “Lovesick Blues” become such a huge hit that is still a fan favorite today but became one of Hank Williams’s signature songs. His offbeat approach, combined with the yodeling, instantly became a cult favorite and earned Williams a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry in 1949.
#1 – Your Cheatin’ Heart
If there was ever a song that would instantly connect fans to Hank Williams without so much as a pause for thought, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” would be it. In 1952, as one of the last recordings made by Williams, it became a number one hit after it was released in January 1953, the same month of his death. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is regarded as one of country music’s most important song standards. For Williams, the inspiration behind the song came after his experience with his first wife, Audrey Sheppard, left such a sour note that he chose to write about it.
Upon release, the song became instantly successful, topping the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for six weeks. Ten years later, Ray Charles ushered in his own version that became one of his biggest hits as well. As for Williams, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was recorded while he was still at an all-time high as far as his musical career goes. However, while his professional career was at its peak, his personal life with his wife, Audrey Sheppard, was at an all-time low.
When the two divorced after nearly sharing nearly ten years together, Williams admitted to what would become his second wife, Billy Jean Hudson (Jones), how Sheppard had a cheating heart. Inspired to sing a song about it, he had his new bride to be write down the lyrics, word for word, as they drove to meet with her parents to announce the wedding.
Top 10 Hank Williams Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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